At the Christmas Eve Kucios dinners of my childhood, my father would recount a special story from his, in the early 1930s.
Christmas Eve at my childhood home in Brooklyn, New York was a time of joyous fulfillment, when the four weeks of preparation during Advent culminated in the ceremony of Kucios, the traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve meal. It was the most important family event of the year, when all its members, even those who had married and left home to live in faraway places, felt drawn to join in the ritual.
My wife and I try to carry on the Kucios tradition in our own family. When the bright star of Christmas Eve becomes visible in the winter sky, we gather around our table for family prayers. Then we kiss the family crucifix, share our Christmas wafers (plotkeles), and one large apple.
As years pass, I repeat those stories that accompany these old customs, just as my father used to do: of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, an act whose disobedience involved us all and required the birth of the Savior to redeem, and of the sharing the wafer and the apple, which symbolized the family's unity and its spiritual kinship with the rest of mankind through Adam.
One year not too long ago, a chair at our Kucios table was empty for the first time. Our daughter, who was then studying at the University of Innsbruck, planned to visit St. Peter's in Rome on Christmas Eve for the midnight mass. She had asked that we keep open a place at the table for her. Since the family Kucios began at 6 PM, it would coincide with the ceremonial opening of the Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's celebrated by the Pope himself.
Looking at my daughter's empty chair, I was reminded of another empty seat, many year's ago, in my parents' home on a Christmas Eve.
It was the depth of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce in Brooklyn, and my parents could not even afford to buy a Christmas tree. The empty chair belonged to my grandfather. My family was celebrating Kucios and grandfather was missing.